A case against a new age of wide-open immigration

The Argument

Facing the prospect of a fundamental change in natural demographics, the U.S. should engage in serious debate.

Books

January 13, 2002|By Lisa Singh | Lisa Singh,Special to the Sun

Praised for transforming one of America's most corrupt cities into a model of civic virtue, San Francisco Mayor James D. Phelan tackled another issue -- immigration. On Dec. 21, 1901, The Saturday Evening Post ran "The Case Against the Chinaman," in which Phelan called for the renewal of an 1882 federal ban on Chinese immigration.

For this nativist, the Chinese were a "sullen, non-assimilative people," who displaced "the sons and daughters of the pioneers" by working "incessantly ... for the lowest wages." He added, "having no appreciation for the blessings of liberty ... Chinamen can make no contribution to citizenship." Phelan got his wish; Congress renewed the Chinese exclusion law in 1902.

Not until 1965 did America's immigrant flow and makeup drastically change. For the first time, a law was passed mandating an immigrant mix that largely excluded Europeans, while it favored those from Third World Latin and Asian countries. Most significantly, the vastly relaxed law's main principle was family reunification, a recipe for exponential immigration.

This policy shift -- coupled with a birth rate among Hispanic and Asian immigrants that far exceeds that of whites -- signals a new age for America. If present trends continue, just 50 years from now, Americans of European descent, who were 90 percent of the population as recently as 1960, will hold minority status.

It's a prediction that fills many with glee, as it did a few years ago, when Bill Clinton told cheering students at Portland State University of a day when whites will be outnumbered in the United States.

There's little to celebrate, though. America's ever-growing diversity is cause for concern, but not for any bigoted reasons offered a century ago by that San Francisco mayor. He, in truth, had little cause to worry; America then had the elan to expect immigrants to embrace the creedal idea of the land, which scholar Peter D. Salins observed, stressed that immigrants abide by the Protestant work ethic, take pride in American history, and speak English.

Today, what's problematic is not the racial mix, but as one polemicist puts it, that we have a native-born elite that tells newcomers there is no national identity to accept. In the past 30 years, our immigration policy has, Salins notes, been shaped less by an assimilationist policy and more by the forces of bilingualism and multiculturalism, as well as a revisionist dogma that teaches us that America's champions -- from George Washington to Thomas Jefferson -- were self-interested racists, not idealistic founders of a republic.

Out is the unifying concept of e pluribus unum in the mounting fragmentation of America. Whether Sept. 11 will inspire a sustained growth in the "America the Beautiful" crowd over the "Amerika" faction is anybody's guess.

At its greatest, this country is, as George Washington said, "an asylum to the oppressed and needy." Immigrants can bring new ideas and vigor, and one of the most salient examples is New York City of the 1970s, which, in large measure, rebounded from economic decline because of the 100,000 immigrants who arrived yearly.

But at no time in America's history, including the peak immigration decade of 1900-10, has immigration nationwide been as high as today. The number has swelled from 300,000 annually in the 1960s to 600,000 in the 1980s. In the past decade, some 10 million legal and illegal immigrants set up permanent residence in America. Our ambivalence about the virtues of assimilation has complicated the question of how we are to address this growing tide of immigrants.

For now, stories of immigrants at odds with parochial white America speak for this adversary culture. One of the latest is Becoming American: Personal Essays By First Generation Immigrant Women (Hyperion, 236 pages, $13.95). Among the angst-ridden contributors is Joyce Zonana, an Egyptian Jewish lesbian (truly a minority) who writes of her time as an English professor in Oklahoma, a state "populated by Bible-thumbing Protestants, fair-haired and fair-skinned Americans."

Mustering fashionable indignation, Zonana -- in obligatory academic pidgin-Hegel -- sees herself as "the other." Well, she does achieve some degree of integration. But it's not through her contact with "conventional America" -- forget that it affords her a home and garden -- but through viewing an Indian pow-wow.

In Stewing in the Melting Pot: The Memoir of a Real American (Capital, 228 pages, $26.95), Robert Sanabria, an American of Mexican descent, tells us that the great Melting Pot is a myth. He recalls his childhood at a Methodist-run orphanage for Latino children where he was fed a policy of assimilation that, he says, stripped him of his native culture, language and religion.

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